Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day and Sunday morning

   So, after receiving hundreds of emails and Facebook posts in response to my conversation-starter about how to think about Memorial Day on a Sunday morning in worship, I came up with this sermon - and it seems to me that after 30 years of dancing around or oversimplifying things, this is a fair, theologically robust approach.  I'd love for you to watch/listen (click here), and let me know what you think.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Disturbing Attendance Trends

When denominational authorities toss out the word “metrics,” I get very nervous, and I detect a morale crusher for clergy serving faithfully in daunting parishes. But I do find myself caring about numbers. The fact that we count bugs a few folks, but I like to say I would far rather than 1,483 instead of 1,482 in worship, because it’s the one, who counts.

Here is the most disturbing numerical trend I’ve noticed over the past decade. But first, a couple of good numbers to establish context. I believe a reasonable measure of a congregation’s health is attendance at high holy, non-Sunday worship moments. A major goal of mine in the four parishes I’ve served has been heightening the importance of Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. In the parish where I serve, attendance at these has quadruped over the past decade. I hate braggadocio attached to such numbers – but as these are sorrowful, penitential days, there’s no real triumphalism in this claim. People have gotten more interested in the Theology of the Cross, and I’d count that as a positive metric.

During this same decade, our membership is higher, and attendance at Easter (when even Donald Trump attends Church wherever he is) has climbed upward more than 50%. So here’s the distressing, deeply troubling numbers. The so-called “low Sundays” (the Sunday after Easter, the Sunday after Christmas, the Sunday after school lets out) have seen, during this decade of growth, astonishing shrinkage. Our Sunday after Christmas attendance has shriveled, gradually, by about 60% over the past 10 years. July and early August numbers are drifting downwards, and noticeably.

What about Mother’s Day? When I first entered the ministry 30 years ago, Mother’s Day rivaled Easter: packed houses, immense enthusiasm. But here we crossed an intriguing threshold six years ago: Mother’s Day, for the past 6 years, has had fewer in attendance than either the first or third Sundays in May.

I wonder if other clergy can corroborate such utterly unscientific but accurate enough metrics. What does it mean when the genuinely optional Sundays (as opposed to Easter, which is mandatory even for pagans) create a yawn, or a fishing or golf junket? What does it mean when Mother’s Day, when Church once was simply part and parcel of honoring Mother, becomes a seizable opportunity to relax by the pool or head to the coast? What if summer, for increasing numbers of our folks, becomes a vacation from worship? Even an uptick on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday: this self-evident measure of spiritual progress might be an illusion – as those coming might be seeking a kind of temporary fix, getting into the “experience” of Holy Week, which is a far cry from actually making constant worship as basic to life as breathing.

I know wiser people than I counter, saying people may not attend so much, but it doesn’t mean they don’t care. I know people are downloading sermons on their iPods. But if a growing Church, which can corral big crowds some of the time, witnesses a lackluster commitment over the long haul, what does this mean for the ongoing life of the Church? I have no good answers for these questions, but quite a few gloomy ones.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Conducting Beethoven's 6th

What a treat: today we drove to hear the marvelous Winston-Salem Symphony perform Beethoven's 6th symphony. I'm positive no one in the room enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. When I was a little boy, for some reason, we owned an album of the lovely "Pastoral" symphony, and I listened to it (why?) over and over, until I knew every note. I would stand in my basement, put the needle to the vinyl, and begin conducting my imaginary orchestra, small flicks of the wrist for the soft moments, grand gestures for the booming crescendos.
When I saw the brilliant maestro, Robert Moody, guiding the orchestra, I could have sworn he had to have been peeping through a window in my childhood home. What a thrill it was seeing and hearing, live! for the very first time, this music I have loved for nearly five decades. I saw the violins, and the crucial woodwinds, and noticed the crowd thrilling to the music.
Music imprints something profound on the soul, resurrecting memories, pointing us toward the sublime, instilling gratitude and a swelling of hope. I wish I had words to explain the joy, the emotion - but this would be like summarizing the meaning of a poem in a single sentence, or explaining a painting. It's a symphony, one that has stood the test of time, and this one even passed the notoriously daunting kid test: a child fell in love, and remembered, and finally saw.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Homosexuality and Ordination

Like everyone with a pulse, I've been interested to read what the Presbyterians are doing with respect to ordination and homosexuality - and am getting peppered with questions about us Methodists. The polity differs in an interesting way: a Presbytery can say Gays can be ordained, but Presbyterian congregations choose their own pastors. In Methodism, if we ordain anyone, that person might become the minister of any Church. So Methodists, predictably, are... more nervous? about such decisions.

We also have debated this every 4 years, and will again next year; the usual outcome is a majority wish to uphold the traditional stance of not accepting homosexuality as a blessed lifestyle, and not ordaining homosexuals. When we did this in 2008, I tried to guide through what I thought was a productive way out of the impasse: to declare that we quite simply disagree on the matter. This was defeated by a 54-46% margin - which left us in the peculiar position of, by a small majority, saying we don't disagree??

Here is my odd thought, and I don't know of anyone else who has made this case: the issue of ordination is totally different from the question of whether we accept homosexuality in general - and I certainly don't mean we might accept homosexuality in general but not ordain. To me, ordination is about God calling someone into holy vocation - so who are we to say God can't call, or hasn't called, or will not call, anybody into ministry? Ordination is the recognition of God's claim on someone for a holy vocation, which isn't about a preference of partners or a lifestyle. To debate lifestyle choices seems like something we ought to do. But to question whom God might call into ministry?

In the Bible, God seems to use all sorts of people, because God quite simply wants to use them. Who am I to say God didn't call someone into this ministerial vocation?
If any of you reading have any thoughts on this notion of the separation of the question of ordination from that of sexual preference in general, I'd love to continue the conversation.

Monday, May 2, 2011

cheering bin Laden's fall?

I was a minute from falling asleep when Lisa said “Osama bin Laden is dead.” My mind raced to process this. Was he found dead in some remote place? We switched on the news, and the details began to reveal a stunning story. Some swirl of emotions were touched off in me. Finally!

But I (perhaps alone…) was a little bit puzzled, and then mortified, to see my fellow citizens swiftly taking to the streets, shouting, waving flags, pumping fists… and I wanted to text each one of them to say “No, no, stay home, be quiet.” I think, like everyone else, I am disturbed, and frankly a bit fearful, when I see news video from other countries, and a rabid throng is shouting approval for some terrorist act, for the downfall of some American citizen/soldier. Somehow I want us to be different, not to match evil cheer for cheer, but to be humble in the face of death.

Yet I do not yet know what to think. Maybe the wise take a few days to let the news settle in, to reflect, and only then to respond. Yes, evil must be kept in check if at all possible; brave Navy SEALS apprehended a criminal - which had to be done. After 9/11, I agreed with those who said it isn’t so much a war on some vague “terror” out there; rather we are faced with criminal activity which must be dealt with. And we have also seen the face of sin, revolt against God, who is not pleased with terrorism.

I noticed a quick Facebook post just minutes after the news broke. Lots of people were typing in various Bible verses about victory over evil – but this post quoted Proverbs 24:17: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” Is that right? I think of the old rabbi who was asked if the angels in heaven celebrated the drowning of Pharaoh and his chariots in the sea when Israel escaped, and he said No, they wept.

Christians, and frankly all sane people, have no cause to be sympathetic with Osama bin Laden. But the wave of glee seems a bit out of kilter for followers of Jesus, just not the right mood somehow. Good: justice was done – but I’m feeling quiet, humbled, grieving if anything over the past decades of so much anger and loss of life across this planet associated with bin Laden. I guess I’m realizing the craziness of the world, the tense rage that afflicts this planet that gave rise to Osama bin Laden, is still out there.

So I wish we could just be still, and pray, and wait for wisdom. Heroic soldiers did their duty; but it’s not a sporting event, it’s a moment of the specter of death in a chilling history of human sorrow. I can’t see cheering, but maybe that’s just my weirdness, and after a few days of tossing these events around, I’ll wave a flag and holler for a while.